Flamengo and the act of the unlikely

THE UNLOVED FIFA Club World Cup now has its cast intact and in all probability, it will culminate in a final involving Liverpool and Flamengo. With a minute or two remaining of the Copa Libertadores final in Lima, you would not have put a single Sol on the Brazilians winning what had been a relatively underwhelming game. River Plate, the holders, were leading by their single first half goal and seemed in control. Then, drama, an important ingredient that’s never lacking in South American football, changed everything. Flamengo have got their wish, a rematch with Liverpool.

The Libertadores cannot buy peace and quiet at the moment. Earelier this year, the 2018 final second leg was switched to Madrid because CONMEBOL were getting tired of postponing the River-Boca game due to civil unrest and an over-heating Buenos Aires public. The reputation of the competition was at stake and this accelerated plans to change the final to a one-off game rather than two legs, hosted in a neutral city. This was not to everyone’s taste, but it did raise the profile of the second biggest club competition in the world.

This season’s final was scheduled to be played in Santiago, which for Flamengo meant a 3,700 km journey from Rio de Janeiro. River Plate had a mere 1,400 km to travel. As a comparison, Liverpool to Madrid, for the 2019 Champions League final, amounted to 2,000 km.

But South America is anything but dull and predictable. Just 18 days before the final, the game was moved from Santiago to Lima. Protests against President Sebastián Piñera over what has been called a harsh exclusionary economic model have become violent. To make matters more complex, the barras from Santiago’s biggest clubs threatened to stage a mass demonstration. CONMEBOL could not afford another embarrassing climax to its showpiece competition.

CONMEBOL eventually took the final away from Santiago and awarded it to Lima’s Estadio Monumental, a venue that was deemed unsuitable to stage the less important Copa Sudamericano. Lima is considered to be South America’s second most dangerous city and football hooliganism is a problem. In 2018, fans of Alianza Lima, the oldest club in Peru, clashed with members of an evangelical church in a dispute over a piece of land adjacent to their stadium.

The financial impact of changing venues didn’t go down well with many fans. Thousands had already purchased air tickets to Chile. Given the distances involved and the economic situation in South America (62 million people in extreme poverty), the one-off final was seen as an unrealistic decision that made no considerations of the challenges facing most people in the region. There is a call to revert to the two-legged final that is more inclusive and more appropriate than the Euro-centric structure CONMEBOL is trying to implement. Ticket prices are absurd. For example, ahead of the game, CONMEBOL released a batch of 11,500 tickets for general sale ranging from US$ 150 to US$ 250.

Yet CONMEBOL could not have got a better draw for their final – Brazil’s top club with 35 million fans worldwide against an Argentinian giant and the holders of the trophy. Flamengo have been runaway leaders of Brazil’s Série A this season and before meeting River Plate in the final, they had a 13-point lead at the top over Santos and Palmeiras. In fact, the day after beating River, Flamengo’s title was secured as Palmeiras lost to Grêmio, making that lead unbeatable. In winning both the Libertadores and their domestic league, Flamengo became the first Brazilian club to achieve that unique double since Santos, with Pelé, in 1963.

For long periods of the final, however, Flamengo looked as though they were suffering from stage fright and didn’t look like a team that had not lost for 26 games. River were the stronger and more confident team and took the lead after 15 minutes, Rafael Borré slotting home with a low shot after Flamengo’s former Atlético Madrid and Chelsea defender Filipe Luis lost possession.

It looked as though that goal might prove to be enough for River as Flamengo just couldn’t make a breakthrough. But with a minute to go, Bruno Henrique, on the left side, found De Arrascaeta and he sent the ball to the far post for Gabriel Barbosa – “Gabigol”- to score. Barbosa had scarcely been involved for most of the game, but in the second minute of added time he scored again. Diego Alves in the Flamengo goal sent a long ball downfield and the River defenders struggled to clear. Pinola inadvertently touched it on and Barbosa scored with his left foot.

Remarkably, there was still time for Barbosa to get sent off after some choice words with the referee. River Plate’s Palacio was also sent off as the dying embers of the game refused to fade out peacefully. An astonishing end to the game, comparable to the 1999 Champions League final when Manchester United came back to beat Bayern Munich.

As for Barbosa, he’s on loan from Inter Milan and he’s certainly found his goalscoring touch at Flamengo, scoring 40 goals in all competitions. His performance in 2019 in Brazil will have done his confidence no harm at all. But with 20 yellow cards and three red, discipline clearly remains a problem for this mercurial player.

Flamengo have spent heavily this season and it has paid off. Barbosa’s wages are said to have cost the club the equivalent of US$ 25 million and they’ve paid big fees for Cruzeiro’s Uruguayan midfielder Giorgan De Arrascaesa, who cost R$ 64 million and bec ame the most expensive transfer ever between Brazilian football clubs. Another big fee (€ 11.8 million) was paid to Roma for 22 year-old central midfielder Gerson. Two experienced players from Europe, 34 year-old Rafinha from Bayern Munich and Filipe Luis were both picked-up on free transfers.

Jorge Jesus, the Flamengo coach and their first non-South American in that role since the 1950s, was overjoyed: “This is the most important title of my career to date. This competition is as important to this continent as the Champions League is in Europe. Two great teams, either could have won. For 40 years, this club has dreamed of this trophy. I’m so happy.”

Spare a thought for River Plate, though, for they were painfully close to a second successive Libertadores victory. The last team to achieve that feat was Boca Juniors in 2001. River have been one of the competition’s most consistent clubs in recent years and will doubtless be back in 2020. One of the interesting features of the competition, though, is the variety of teams that make it through to the last eight. As yet, there’s no UEFA Champions League-type monopoly. In the last 10 years, there’s been nine different winners, compared to six in Europe.

The 2020 final will be held in Rio de Janeiro on November 21, or at least, that’s the plan. Don’t book flights too early.



Photo: PA

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